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Residents sound-off on plans to replace 150 nuclear missiles in central Montana

Missile replacement at Malmstrom Air Force Base in 1962.
U.S. Air Force
Missile replacement at Malmstrom Air Force Base in 1962.

One-hundred-fifty nuclear missiles in central Montana will be replaced in the coming years. Air Force officials visited the region this week to explain the project and answer questions about the work.

Project Sentinel is expected to hire up to 3,000 people and bring truckloads of machinery to Montana as missiles installed across the West during the 1960s are replaced.

“We don’t live in the greatest peaceful environment that we would all hope for,” Col. Barry Little said.

Col. Little works on Malmstrom Air Force Base. He spoke to a crowd of more than 375 people at a town hall in Great Falls.

“We have potential adversaries in Russia and China. If you read the news they’re growing their nuclear enterprise,” Little said.

Hundreds of nuclear missiles are in silos throughout central Montana. Air Force officials said much of the missile data, like launch codes, are still stored on floppy disks and need upgrades. The Air Force said nuclear deterrence is the number one priority of the Department of Defense.

Hubs for the replacement project will be in Great Falls and Lewistown. There are local concerns about the work's impact on private property, public and health infrastructure and safety.

Protesters outside of the Great Falls town hall criticized any U.S. expansion of its nuclear weapons.

Great Falls City Commissioner Rick Tryon asked about support for law enforcement and courts.

“I have a concern, as we go forward, about the public safety impact that a workforce hub of up to 3,000 workers, in close proximity to our community, is going to have,” Tryon said.

The Air Force is contracting with Virginia-based defense company Northrop Grumman to replace the missiles.

Matt Dillon, with Northrop Grumman, said they will build a workforce center across 50-60 acres with housing, a grocery store and emergency medical services, to mitigate the effect on Great Falls.

“Folks that we don't hire locally will have to be brought in and they'll live right there on the workforce hub,” Dillon said. “They don't tend to bring their families. So we don't expect our primary workforce to have much of an impact on school districts.”

It will be up to the Air Force and city officials to decide what happens with the hub once the project is done. The Air Force expects the project to run for two to five years.

Sentinel will include the installation of 1,800 miles of new utility lines, some on private land easements. The Air Force will buy some land as well.

Rancher Walter Schweitzer said even if landowners aren’t involved with easements, Air Force activities harm potential land value.

“I also had looked at getting a wind farm built and the companies that were building the wind farms, they drew big circles around the missile bases, and they blacked out any areas around your cables and said, ‘we're not putting a wind tower there,’” Schweitzer said.

Audience members expressed wariness when they were told landowners would receive fair compensation for impacts on their property.

The project is set to begin in the next few years, starting in Wyoming, before moving on to Montana and then North Dakota.

The Air Force said Sentinel enables it to extend land-based nuclear capabilities through 2075.

Corrected: January 29, 2024 at 10:03 AM MST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of missiles being replaced in Montana. Project Sentinel will replace 400 missiles across Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, including 150 in Montana. We regret the error.
Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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